Given my rather shameful disdain for anyone more accomplished than myself, I perhaps wasn’t quite ready to embrace him when I showed up for Mr. Smith’s October lecture at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. But attend I did, and in the course of an hour, I learned that not only is Michael Smith charming and humble, but a real talent as well.
With the help of Ali Wentworth – the best thing to happen to Georgetown since St. Elmo’s Fire and the newest addition to my best friend wish list – we learned, for instance, that Michael can be a tad obsessive, as with a long-running sushi binge and conversion to wearing only kimonos following a weekend spent reading Shogun. He also described the amusing phenomenon whereby he has designed and re-designed the interiors of the same houses, as his clients sold their homes to other clients, in the somewhat manic high-end California housing market. And while his good humor showed that Mr. Smith does not take himself too seriously – he described his work as the equivalent of sand painting – we also learned that he, like other artists, is deadly serious about his work, no matter how transient it may or may not be.
During the course of his lecture, Mr. Smith described the technical aspects of his work process from the conceptual stage to the rendering of 3-D blueprints. But even more interesting, Michael discussed aspects of his creative process. He described, for instance, his passion for fusing seemingly disparate designs, like 18th Century artifacts and 1970s furnishings. He talked about his dedication to American artistry and craft, which has inspired his own new line of products, everything from linens to lighting. He also described his work in a way that convinced me that he possesses the most important characteristic of great designers – the willingness and the drive to challenge clients. He talked about his demands that clients travel to view potential design options and his need for them to truly participate in the design process. Amusingly, he spoke of turning away potential clients who had seen one of his homes and asked for a re-creation. He also spoke charmingly of his dedication to historical design, something he has studied and continues to study in depth, and his occasional ability to drive people mad with his demands for accuracy and detail.
Acknowledging that these traits don’t always make him the easiest person to work with, Mr. Smith showed that the payoff is not only remarkable results, but total dedication to the project and to getting everything right. As he stated, Michael has gone as far as kissing a piece of furniture to convince wary clients that it was the right piece for a room. When was the last time you got service like that from, well, anyone in a legitimate line of business?
So, enough with this passion, vision, and inspiration, what did the Obamas select for Malia and Sasha’s room, did they get matching coverlets, and what sort of bureau houses the presidential boxers/briefs? Mr. Smith was rightly, if frustratingly, mum on these points, stressing respect for his first family clients. He did, however, mention, as he described trends of the day, a move towards creating more and more levels of private space within the home, especially for couples with children. Now who does that sound like?
I’m not a pushover, but by the end of Michael Smith’s talk, I respected his dedication to the art of design, his seriousness about his work, and his willingness to challenge his own clients when his vision is at stake. Not a bad match for the new first family. That said, I’d really like to know where they got their sheets.